There's a real difficulty in reviewing a title such as Bioshock Infinite. Irrational Games' follow up to 2010's Bioshock 2 is less a direct sequel and more a spiritual successor despite falling firmly in the Bioshock franchise.
This can make it tricky as the game simultaneously needs to be evaluated as a distinct title, as well as part of a greater body of work. So going into our play test, we were extremely keen to see if Bioshock Infinite worked as both a standalone game and as part of the Bioshock world.
For many fans of Bioshock 1 and 2, calling the games first person shooters seems almost sacrilegious, falling far short of describing the full experience. But like it or not, Bioshock games are first person shooters — and adept ones at that.
The new guy
Bioshock Infinite puts us in the shoes of Booker DeWitt, an ex-Pinkerton detective with a troubled past (because let's be honest, how many games want you to play as a character with a happy home life?), who is sent to the city of Colombia to find and rescue a girl, Elizabeth. Do this, we are repeatedly told, and wipe away your debts.
Infinite's cold open, without going into details, sets the tone perfectly for the game. Unlike previous Bioshock games, DeWitt is a chatty protagonist, taken to talking to himself and those around him. His regular utterances of confusion and awe (and later, rage) are a big change from the hulking silence of Bioshock 2's prototype, Big Daddy. With any vocal first person character, there's always the need to balance the force of the characters personality in such a way that the player still feels involved, and Irrational's treatment of DeWitt seems to do this extremely well.
In terms of straight game play, for the most part, Bioshock Infinite follows the "if it ain't broke" model. DeWitt will find a variety of weapons throughout the game, which can be upgraded in different ways at special upgrade stations to provide bigger clips, better damage, etc. Vigors replace Plasmids, but functions in much the same way, drawing on Salt instead of Eve. The role of Tonics are played by Gear — that is, clothing you'll find on the way that can enhance combat and other abilities in a variety of ways.
The big new feature with combat is DeWitt's regenerating shield that he gains a little into the game. It's a fairly inoffensive and none-too-surprising feature, but adds an extra layer of durability. Like Salt or Health, it can be upgraded through the use of special potions found in the game.
Exploration is still key with DeWitt, following in his forebears footsteps and devouring food and slurping down drinks with reckless abandon any time you get near them. You can't stockpile any Salt replenishing tonics or first aid kits, either — frustrating at first, although this is less of an issue later in the game, which we'll get to in a bit.
You'll also find Voxaphones liberally spread around Columbia, voice recordings from NPCs and citizens that flesh out the incredible history of the floating city.
The skyline adds a new exploration angle as well. DeWitt can use his sky-hook grapnel to ride this personal travel rail at high speed, as well as a freight hook to reach different levels of Columbia quickly.
There are a few things that set infinite apart from its forebears. The first is Columbia itself. While it's tempting to dismiss a flying city as just the furthest away Irrational could get to the aquatic world of Rapture, it's far more than that. While we explored Rapture as a "post-diluvian" environment — one already fallen, turned to wrack and ruin — we are introduced to Columbia as a city that on the face of it is still in its prime. It's frankly beautiful, the bright colour palette and cloud-dappled skyline only heightening its differences to the dank confines of Rapture.
Of course, this is a Bioshock game, so we soon discover that the shiny red apple hides a dark worm within and much of the game will focus on this fall from artificial grace that Columbia will undergo. Thematically (and without going deep enough to risk spoilers), the title is most obviously about American Exceptionalism and the degree of prejudice that some proponents inherently place in it. It's also similar to the first two titles, about the haves and have-nots, but with an intriguing look at what oppression might turn a society into.
The other thing that sets Infinite apart is Elizabeth. The girl DeWitt is searching for is able to open dimensional rifts and, in addition to being essential to the plot, these also aid you in combat giving you access to weapons, cover, turrets and more. Also, during combat, Elizabeth will track down health, salts and ammunition for you, throwing them your way at opportune moments (and hence why you don't get to stock pile health kits and the like).
What's great about Elizabeth is that she hasn't been portrayed as a burden. She doesn't need protecting during combat, and it never feels like an extended escort quest. She's a great ally and healer, as well as being a rounded, fascinating character.
Speaking of combat, we found Bioshock Infinite's combat to be a little more satisfying than the previous games in many ways. The sky-hook fulfils the role of melee weapon and is every bit as satisfying as the drill from Bioshock 2. The ranged weapons seemed well varied, and the iron sights were dependable on most of them.
Oddly, we found that we tended to use a limited run of the available attacks. We ended up with around three Vigors we might swap between, and around the same amount of weapons, changing only if ammunition ran out. (If we're being really honest, the minute we got the Hand Cannon, everything else paled in comparison.)
The skyline also adds to combat, both in DeWitt's ability to shoot while travelling around the rails, as well his capacity to launch devastating melee attacks when landing. Much of the Gear you find will help enhance these skyline, attacks and we recommend getting comfortable with the mechanics of it as soon as you can.
We should note that we also experienced a few combat moments where wave after wave of enemy stopped being fun and started being frustrating. These were minimal, but broke our sense of enjoyment at a few points.
Of course, anyone familiar with a Bioshock game will want to know about the ending. Suffice to say that there's enough packed into both the run up to the end and the end itself to leave you reeling. In fact, we're still thinking back to the ending, teasing out new thoughts and takes on the experience a week after finishing our play-through.
Bioshock fans will find a lot to like here, but so will anyone new to the series. Bioshock Infinite manages to feel fresh and different, but at the same time, it's firmly set in the Bioshock world. Once again, Irrational and 2K have made a thinking person's shooter: a smart, fun, thought provoking game that stays with you for some time after finishing.